Why so few?

AAUW, formerly known as the American Association of University Women, recently released a report titled: Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

AAUW was selected by the National Science Foundation to conduct the study outlined in the report, digging deep into the reasons and implications of the lack of women in the STEM fields. The report describes several ways in which schools (from grade school through university), communities, families, and the workplace can create a better environment to disrupt negative stereotypes associated with women in science and math.

One really cool thing (among a lot of other really cool things) was the entire chapter dedicated to spatial skills. The spatial-skills training research of Sheryl Sorby, a professor at Michigan Tech, was featured in the report. Sorby, who literally wrote the book on learning spatial visualization, identified methods for improving retention, particularly of female students, who learn these skills.  Many engineering students see spatial visualization as the walk-in-the-door, take-the-test-determinant of whether or not they’ll be a good engineer. They do not necessarily realize that spatial visualization is not innate, it is learned. Sorby says:

Most engineering faculty have highly developed 3-D spatial skills and may not understand that others can struggle with a topic they find so easy. Furthermore, they may not believe that spatial skills can be improved through practice, falsely believing that this particular skill is one that a person is either “born with” or not. They don’t understand that they probably developed these skills over many years.

The report goes on to describe a plethora of other important points related to female success and retention in STEM fields. It offers a thorough list of recommendations at the end of each chapter and at the end of the report as well.

Some cool highlights of the report:

  • Although women are the majority of college students, they are far less likely than their male peers to plan to major in a STEM field (page 5 of report)
  • Women’s representation among tenured faculty is lower than one would expect based on the supply of female science and engineering doctoral degree recipients in recent decades (Kulis et al, 2002, from page 17 of report)
  • Expose girls to successful female role models in math and science (recommendation, from page 42 of report)
  • Encourage students to have a more flexible or growth mindset about intelligence (figure below, from recommendation, from page 42 of report)
  • Teachers and professors can reduce reliance on stereotypes by making performance standards and expectations clear (recommendation, from page 50 of report)
  • Make a female-friendly department by sponsoring a women-in-science group (recommendation, from page 65 of report)
  • Conduct departmental reviews to assess the climate for female faculty (recommendation, from page 72 of report)
  • Spread the word about girls’ and womens’ achievements in math and science (recommendation, from page 90 of report)

    A growth mindset promotes persistence in STEM (from page 34 of report)

I encourage everyone to head over to AAUW’s website and download a copy of it.


6 thoughts on “Why so few?

  1. My home town schools would possibly be a good place to look (hopefully still). The AP Chem and AP physics classes had easily just as many females as males and everyone did well. Most of the people that helped me through AP chem were female while there was an even mix of those I helped through AP physics. In AP calc, the ladies in the class were always helping us guys out. Then again, in the town that at least used to have the highest density of PHDs in the world, things were exactly representative of the rest of the world (Los Alamos, NM)
    Engineering school was a bit different as it was ~5:1 male:female; the females that were there though were dang good!
    The more I look at schooling for my kids; the more I think that at least partial gender separation would be good in early years as there seems to be a good bit of research saying that early learning styles are sometimes quite different between genders.

    Interesting point on spatial learning – I’ve read that it develops at different stages/rates; but also had the understanding that it was innate – though now that I think about it, never seen research backing that up.

  2. Ben,
    in the report, the authors discuss how boys and girls in AP classes are equally distributed. It even shows graphs about females earning more math credits and having a higher GPA in math than their male classmates.

    It’s not just a case of girls not doing as well (enough) or being as involved in the STEM classes in high school. Girls have the exact same score on computer science courses, yet the number of girls going into computer sci in college has gone down.

    There is some disconnect for females on the step from high school to college. For some reason, they lose interest in the STEM fields, even though they show that they are capable of learning and understanding the material.

  3. On a similar note, my friend Caroline recently bought me the book “Why So Slow” by Virginia Valian. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but it’s on my summer list. Same discussion about the slower advancement of women in the science fields.

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